It’s no secret: I love spirits. And I love exploring how to pair spirituous flavors with cheese. Over the weekend, I teamed up with Stefanie Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse Cheese (left) and Dean Brown of Rowhouse Spirits (right) for an “After Hours in the Greenhouse” event at my local urban farm, Greensgrow. What better place to studiously (ahem) sample herbaceous notes?
Here are a few gleanings, if you want to try pairing gin and dairy at home.
Gin Likes Sheep Cheese
Generally, I find that gin works beautifully with firm sheep’s milk cheeses, like Pecorino. You need a fatty cheese to stand up to hard alcohol, and you need a cheese with herbaceous notes that will be buoyed (not destroyed) by juniper-forward gin. Pecorino Ginepro? An ideal gin bunk-mate.
Gin Cocktail? Yes, Please…with Double or Triple Cremes
Soft cheeses, like the four styles we used from Valley Milkhouse on Saturday, need a caress. A caress in the form of bitters and/or bubbly. A French 75 — made with gin, lemon, simple syrup, and Champagne — is a terrific pairing. It’s the pairing I served onThanksgiving with delicate goat cheeses from Vermont Creamery. A smashing combo.
At Saturday’s tasting, we served “pink gin” — gin and bitters — to round out the flavors so the gin didn’t overwhelm the cheese. Orange bitters and Angostura worked well. If you want to play with pink gin at home, pour gin over ice, add a few dashes of bitters and a lemon peel. Rim the glass with the oil from the peel, then drop it into your drink. As the ice melts, the flavors will blend — a little dilution is necessary, in my opinion, for gin to work with delicate dairy.
Explore a Variety of Gins, from Floral to Herbaceous
A great pairing should be balanced, so look for flavors that will accentuate your cheese. Rowhouse Gin is juniper-forward with a lingering taste of chamomile. Lovely, complex. That’s why I wanted to pair it with the soft, grassy notes of Valley Milkhouse Cheeses. Angstadt uses a combination of sheep and cow’s milk from pasture-raised animals. Perfect. Her cheeses are all named after wildflowers, a good flavor tip-off.
Add Honey as a Flavor Bridge
Honey is a great bridge for uniting dairy and spirits — especially when pairing with salty cheeses. Try herbaceous honeys, like thyme, lavender, or rosemary. You can purchase these or make your own gorgeous infusions. Add some roasted nuts, like almonds or hazelnuts tossed into a skillet with some olive oil and sea salt. Voila, you have an incredible cheese and spirits board!
Longing for some pairing play? Don’t worry. We have more Greensgrow After Hours cheese events in the works. Check the Greensgrow events page (and mine!) for updates. You can also read more about how to pair cheese in my little ol’ book (link up top). Drop me a line if you discover a glorious cheese and gin pairing. I would love to hear from you.
This post is based on a talk I gave at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference in February on the subject of Writing About Products for Market. Since several of you have asked about it, I’ve condensed my notes and included a link to my PowerPoint presentation. Please feel free to share!
Observation #1: We live in a digital dairy era.
When people buy a cheese, they google it to find pairing ideas and to learn about its history. Marketing your cheese, or any artisan product, means connecting – connecting your eaters to the information they are looking for. If you share your story, your favorite pairings, your process, they can re-share it with their family and friends, and this creates a network of fans. I know because I rely on that very network here.
Six years ago, I started blogging about cheese to educate myself about something I loved. Then I sought out cheesemakers. I found them online and showed up at their market stands. I posted pictures of these experiences, and eaters started following. That led to tasting parties, which turned into workshops, which turned into a book where I shared pairing tips and cheese stories, which turned into a trip to Italy for blog readers, which turned into this moment.
Think of social media as the night sky – you’re a point in it. By reaching out, you connect to others and build your own constellation.
Observation #2: Eaters are Instagrammers.
In 2014, the largest demographic of specialty foods buyers were aged 25-34, according the Specialty Food Association. Of all specialty foods purchased, cheese was #3 — after chocolate and olive oil, and before coffee, ice cream, and salty snacks.
Think about how to connect to your future eaters. They’re digital, they’re visual. This group, more than ever, is interested in learning about where their food comes from. They love craft beer and interactive experiences, like tastings and hands-on classes where they can be makers. Most know nothing about farm life; they’ve grown up eating processed foods, and they’re in search of authentic experiences and products.
I teach theses students in my food writing classes at Saint Joseph’s University. Many of them can not recognize a radish.
Observation #3: Hand-crafted cheese shouldn’t look like commodity cheese.
MIT anthropologist Heather Paxson has studied the renaissance of cheese making in America and written about it in her fascinating book The Life of Cheese. The challenge for artisan cheesemakers, she says? To distinguish themselves from commodity cheese by giving their cheeses identities.
How do you do you give your cheese an identity? I reached out to my Facebook network and to students in my classes for feedback. Here’s what they said…
Give it a memorable name. (Humboldt Fog, Vampire Slayer, Prima Donna.)
Avoid shrink-wrap. Look at the innovative packaging by Mystic Cheese Co. below, for example. Why hand-make a beautiful cheese and stuff it into an ugly wrapper? How will young eaters be able to recognize your craft?
Observation #4: Look for collaborators if you are too busy for these observations.
I recognize that many cheese operations are run by a single brilliant person. They don’t have time to Tweet or design clever packaging. If you are one of them, find a collaborator. Offer to trade cheese for some social media expertise or hand-lettered signage. Reach out to your eaters, your market-goers, your neighbors.
In the collaborative economy, makers often trade with makers. This breeds goodness. You learn something about their world, and they learn about yours. Don’t be afraid to reach out to local college students for interns. Trade a pound of cheese for an Instagram account, for a simple logo, for a farmers’ market sign. By inviting them to participate, you’ve created an interactive pathway. Isn’t that what led you to where you are?
Click here for my PASA PowerPoint slides. And tune in over the next few weeks for follow-up posts with a series on digital dairy identities. These posts are designed to help cheesemakers navigate the world of social media and branding. Please feel free to chime in with questions and stories.
Some meal memories never fade — I can still taste the milk dinner prepared by Philadelphia Chef Chris Kearse of Will BYOB four years ago on my birthday. A milk dinner. (Sigh.) Can anything be more beautiful?
That’s why I am thrilled to be giving away two tickets to the pop-up dinner Kearse will roll out on March 5, 2015 as part of Dinner Lab.
What is Dinner Lab?
One part laboratory, two parts social experiment, Dinner Lab provides unorthodox dining experiences for its members. Membership costs $125 (see discount link below for MF readers), which gives you access to a calendar of pop-ups around the country (Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago…most recently Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Each pop-up costs around $65.
I met the company’s CFO, Bryson Aust, a few weeks ago to learn more about his vision: to elevate up-and-coming chefs through underground dining experiences around the country.
Aust explained how he and his partners (fellow MBA-ers at Tulane) developed the concept out of necessity — when they moved to New Orleans, they surfed the pop-up scene but learned how taxing it was for chefs to organize. “No one made any money,” Aust said. So, he and his peers focused on building a sustainable platform. The company handles ticketing, location scouting, staffing, and even food sourcing. And yes, chefs get paid. This is not about free labor.
Curious about Dinner Lab? Win a 1-year membership + 2 tickets to the Chris Kearse dinner in Philadelphia by leaving a comment about your most memorable meal in the comment box below. The giveaway ends at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015.
Also, the folks at Dinner Lab have been kind enough to offer discounted membership to MF readers. Click here to receive a membership discount ($75 instead of $125).
Hope to see you at the dinner!
Note: the location of this dinner will be unveiled the night before. (See menu below.)
Dinner Lab presents Chris Kearse …
Cuisine : Classique Moderne | Reverence for tradition, respect for progress
Location: to be released a day before
About Chef Chris Kearse
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Menu Concept: This menu focuses on its season, respecting French traditions along with classic and modern techniques to build a dining experience that evokes excitement and emotion.
Current Gig: Chef/Owner, Will BYOB
Work History: Tru (Chicago) | Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel (Philadelphia) | Pumpkin (Philadelphia) | Blackfish (Conshohocken, PA)
Education: The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College
Menu for March 5, 2015
1 Pistachio Soup : puffed grains | king crab | burnt cream
2 Grilled Bay Scallop : beech mushroom | green tea | meyer lemon & espelette emulsion
3 Okinawa Potato & Foie Gras Tortellini : oxtail marmalade | chestnut | oxalis
4 Duck Cassoulet : lentils & pumpkin | fennel crème
5 Spiced Guinness Cake : red wine caramel | miso & brown butter ice cream | pear
Photo credits: Jeff Thibodeau, Ryan Green, Aaron Lyles. Photos courtesy of Dinner Lab.
Some cheeses inspire you the moment you unwrap them. Their freshness beckons, their rinds beg you to run your fingers across them. Surfaces speak: ripples call to mind tide pools, ridges suggest barnacles.
I am speaking about Lakins Gorges Cheese from Rockport, Maine. When I opened the box from their maker, Alison Lakin, I was struck by how sturdy they looked, like a crew of weathered mariners. Solid. Salty. Stoic. Even the ricotta held its basket curve.
Last Sunday, Erin, who is interning with me this spring, helped me gather a basket of props for our photo shoot. We tasked ourselves with expressing the personality of these rounds, and so we collected husky things – shells, wool, wood.
We wanted you to be able to taste these cheeses in your mind.
Imagine eating them with dark preserves – Allison Lakin likes to serve them with blueberry chutney, which we approximated with some ridiculously juicy pickled plums put up my friend Marisa McClellan.
We recorded our notes and starred our favorites.
Lakin’s Gorges Cheese Notes
Light, fluffy, immaculate, sweet. This ricotta retains the shape of its basket mold, such a nice touch. You can taste the quality organic milk here, from the 8th generation dairy (yes, that’s right) where Allison sources her milk.
Soft and creamy, like a peppermint patty with mushroomy notes. It’s the perfect size to pack on a winter picnic. Allison Lakin says this year’s Allagash Fluxus is an ideal bunk mate.
Prix de Diane*
Supple and oozy, delicate and mild. This luxurious cake is made for jam – it’s named for Allison’s godmother who encouraged her to become a cheesemaker (earlier in life, Allison worked as an anthropologist and a stage hand.)
Here’s the rugged scalawag of the bunch, all onion breath and a little bitter. Opus 42 smells and tastes like scallions just pulled from wet earth, like damp moccasins. It needs dark bread, marmalade, a side of pemmican. Not for the meek.
Earthy and salty, with a compact flaky texture and lovely sour cream and mushroom aftertaste – a drizzle of honey (try pine honey) is fitting for this stern bob named after a wooden whaling ship. What’s a stern bob? Well, just imagine. Incidentally, Morgan likes a nip off a flask of gin.
About Lakins Gorges Cheeses
“I’ve worked as a stage hand, and I studied anthropology,” Allison told me on the phone, a few days after she sent her samples. No wonder her cheeses live somewhere between the museum world (crustaceous) and the stage world (theatrical).
Allison’s operation is a one-woman show. She purchases organic milk from an 8th generation family farm and uses organic vegetarian rennet, making cheese in a rented space two days a week. On other days, she salts and ships. Most of her cheeses go out the door to wholesale accounts to co-ops and restaurants. She also sells them on her website.
If you live in Philadelphia, look for Lakin’s Gorges cheeses at Talula’s Daily next week.
And, of course, invite your friends to a snow picnic.
Curious about Maine cheeses? Check out the Maine Cheese Guild.
Few things make me happier than discovering a new cheese. Or a fabulous new cheesemaker. Imagine the bright fever that overcame me when I found a new Pennsylvania triple creme in the cooler at Greensgrow, my local urban farm, several months ago. It was so lush, I began stalking the cheesemaker on Instagram (@milkhousecheese), which led to a coffee date, which led to a creamery visit, all of which leads you and me to this…
On Friday, March 13, I’ll be at Greensgrow Farm in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood for a special tasting with cheesemaker Stefanie Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse. We’ll enjoy her line of glorious French-style cheeses and pair them with local libations, including hard cider from Philadelphia Brewing Co. and gin from Rowhouse Spirits — both distilleries are practically within a few blocks of the farm. If you’ve never sipped gin with cheese, prepare thyself. Flavors of juniper and chamomile love extra luxe dairy. Rowhouse distiller Dean Browne will join us, too, for some incredible pairing geekery!
This special tasting is designed to reel in spring — we’ll feast in Greenshgrow’s greenhouse beneath twinkle lights and hanging baskets, and dip into some of the preserves that staffers put up before winter. Come join us for a special evening of local dairy and hootch! It’s sure to be one of the most memorable events of the year. Click here for tickets.
About Valley Milkhouse: In its first year of operation, this one-woman creamery transforms local sheep’s milk and organic pasture-based cow’s milk to produce a variety of French cheese styles at a historic milkhouse in Oley, PA. You can recognize these cheeses around Philly because they are all named after wild plants: Lamb’s Ear, Thistle, Witchgrass, Blue Bell. Look for them in cases at Greensgrow, Di Bruno Bros., Fair Food Farmstand, and Talula’s Daily. Valley Milkhouse is also a new vendor at the Clark Park Farmers’ Market.
More Cheese Events…
Come find me at the Di Bruno Bros. table and meet Anna Juhl of Cheese Journeys — we can tell you about the Cheddar Odyssey coming up this fall! Plus, there’s a cheese and beer cave, and a private tasting with cheese expert Max McCalman.
Hang out and pair wines and cheeses with these two cheese impresarios. This event is a private tasting at Di Bruno Bros. 9th St. Tickets $90.
Check out the incredible line-up of local cheeses. This is a master class, followed by a special dinner. Tickets $85.